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What chance to score as a pro?

Will any footballers in this year's Schools Senior Shield final go on to greater things? asks Gordon Cairns.

Last month a group of boys from Johnstone High in Renfrewshire achieved something that many grown men dream of: winning a medal at Hampden Park. In clinching the Scottish Schools Football Association Bank of Scotland Senior Shield, they joined a select group of footballers, including Larsson, Zidane, Laudrup and Figo.

After beating the Nicolson Institute of Stornoway 5-4 on penalties, are the players good enough to progress? That is the crucial question for Scottish football, which can ill afford to misplace any talent. Incredibly for a country that is passionate about the game, Scotland has one of the lowest national proportions of players - 3.6 per cent - in Europe.

Four years ago, the boys of Our Lady's High in Motherwell had their day in the spotlight, beating Dumfries High 2-1. Of those playing that night, only one turned professional: Stephen Pearson, who scored the winning goal. He has gone on to play for his country (in the Euro 2004 play-offs) and now the 21-year-old Celtic midfielder has won this season's Young Player of the Year awards from the Scottish Professional Football Association and the Scottish Football Writers Association. The others are a mixture of postmen, civil servants and students.

The team captain that night was Stephen Clark, who played sweeper. He saw his appearance at Hampden Park as a stepping-stone to bigger things.

Although playing junior football part-time now, Clark, aged 21, believes he can still follow his former classmate into professional football.

"I've believed since I was young that football would be my career. I've never given up hope as I know I have enough ability and I am still young enough," he says.

The majority of his teammates however, saw their appearance at the national stadium as the end of a successful football career. Right back Barry Quinn, now 22, who is studying sports science at Paisley University, says: "We knew it was the end of something. That's why many of us stayed on to do a sixth year, so we could play for the team and end with something big. We knew we were capable of winning the shield because we had won a lot of competitions in Lanarkshire over the previous six years."

He puts the side's success down to the team management of maths and guidance teacher Mary Mulholland and her husband, Jim. "We wanted to win it for them."

Chris Russell played centre forward that night and now, aged 21, is working as a classroom support assistant for people with disabilities. He has coached football abroad but his playing career is restricted to playing five-a-side bounce games with friends.

He says: "I really tried to take it all in during the game, as I doubt very much I will be back playing at Hampden Park. I have very fond memories of the experience."

Quinn remembers: "During the game time seemed to pass really quickly and suddenly it was over."

He has been back to Hampden Park only as a spectator. "When I see the teams run out, I know what they must be feeling," he says.

The final was especially poignant for Clark as it was the last time his grandfather saw him play. He says: "Holding the wee mascot's hand coming down the tunnel is the only time in my life I have been nervous before a game. Then I just wanted to get an early touch of the ball to settle myself."

Russell thinks that, apart from Pearson, at least three others from the side could have made it professionally. So why did Pearson succeed where so many good school footballers failed? "Stephen Pearson was tall, he had speed, was left-sided - which is really unusual - and he was dedicated."

Clark agrees that Pearson trained really hard.

Quinn doesn't remember him standing out until the final but then really responding to the Hampden Park experience.

"If there had been a better system other boys on the park could have made it," he says.

Now SportScotland and the Scottish Football Association aim to bring more players through the schools system into the professional game with a pound;31.1 million 10-year action plan to streamline the structure of under-19 football. The plan, launched at the end of March, will bring schools football under the SFA's umbrella and, it is hoped, ensure swift progression from youth leagues to national squads. The target is to increase player participation in Scotland by 20 per cent.

Clark believes this will improve the quality of football in Scotland. He felt there was room for improvement in the organisation of the Lanarkshire schools county side he played for. "All we did was play games. We never trained together and only met the other players on match days," he says.

"If professional trainers were brought in and there was better integration between clubs and schools, more players would come through the schools system.

"There is still a big divide between clubs and schools."

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